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Enliven Your Favorite Foods with Vivacious Vinegars

Photo: Scott Payne

It’s time to celebrate the vibrancy different vinegars have to offer to tease and tickle our taste buds. A dash of vinegar is the trendy new salt and pepper.

Discovered by chance more than 10,000 years ago, vinegar is the byproduct of fermentation of any liquid containing starch or sugar, such as fruits, berries, honey, syrups, grains and coconut. In fact, vinegar’s name comes from the French word vin aigre, which translates to “sour wine.” The liquid first ferments into alcohol and a secondary fermentation turns it into vinegar.

Because vinegar takes on the flavor profile of the foods from which it is fermented, newer versions and infusions made with herbs and spices are making a splash. Globally, favorite flavors of vinegar include apple cider, garlic, herb-infused, raspberry, cranberry, lemon and fig.

Low in calories, vinegar can range from thin and sharp to very sweet and syrupy. Vinegar does not need to be refrigerated due to its acidity, but it should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. For freshness and quality, consume vinegar within two years. Sometimes this liquid becomes cloudy after opening, which is a natural occurrence of cellulose forming from harmless bacteria. The best solution is to strain the vinegar through a coffee filter to continue use. 

Vinegars have a long history of being used for household and medicinal purposes, from facial toner and acne treatment to blood sugar control, satiety, improved digestion and weight loss. Three of the most common vinegars found in American homes — white (distilled), apple cider and malt — have many uses, including:

  • Soak fish in water and vinegar before cooking to enhance the sweetness of the fish, make it tender and maintain its shape.
  • After peeling potatoes, place in a container of vinegar and water to preserve their white coloring.
  • Create vinaigrette or marinade by adding one part of your favorite vinegar to three parts oil.

Chinese Red Rice Vinegar

Slightly salty in flavor with a distinct tang and tartness due to mold from red yeast rice, this vinegar works well with Chinese fish and noodle dishes and sweet and sour sauces.

White (Distilled) Vinegar

Fermented from grains, white vinegar has a tangy and tart taste. Because of its strong flavor, only small quantities are used in cooking. Common uses include pickling, tenderizing meats, poaching eggs, making buttermilk and using as a household cleaning solution.

Champagne Vinegar

Created from the yeast sediment and Champagne remaining in the neck of the bottle during the sparkling wine production process, this light and sweet vinegar complements berry salads and French white sauces, such as beurre blanc, and brightens tomato sauce flavor.

Red Wine Vinegar

This full-bodied vinegar is great with red meats, red vegetables such as beets (to maintain their vibrant color), dark sauces and gravies, mustard and rich-flavored herbs in vinaigrette. The best red wine vinegars are aged for at least six months in oak casks.

Cider Vinegar

The most versatile, this vinegar is fermented from apple juice or cider and is sold unfiltered and filtered. It is ideal in salad dressings, especially for slaws, and meat-tenderizing marinades. Cider vinegar also preserves foods well.

Balsamic Vinegar

Made from grape must (whole pressed fruit and stems), traditional balsamic vinegar is dark and intense, and complements fruits and cooked meats. While true balsamics carry authenticity stamps, other mass-produced varieties are actually wine or cider vinegar with coloring or sweetener. These are sometimes referred to as “imitation balsamic” and are best used in marinades and salad dressings. Both types contain sulfites.

Vietnamese Rice Vinegar (Giam Bong)

Spicy and sour, this vinegar is used in many Vietnamese dipping sauces and Hoisin sauce. It also is commonly used as a finisher or topping in Pho and to pickle vegetables on banh mi sandwiches.

Sherry Vinegar

Sherry wine is fermented in oak casks until it becomes a full-bodied, brownish-colored vinegar with a hint of raisin flavor. This flavor profile is a cross between red wine and balsamic vinegars and is ideal as a finishing touch to red meat, soups, stews and casseroles.

Japanese Rice Vinegar (Komezu)

Lightly colored and made from rice or sake deposits, this vinegar has a mellow and mild flavor. It is often used for pickling ginger and vegetables such as cucumber, cabbage, daikon and onion.

Chinese Black Vinegar (Zhenjiang)

Traditional rice-based black vinegars taste similar to soy sauce combined with balsamic vinegar. This dark vinegar goes through an extensive production and aging process, resulting in a rich, smoky and sweet flavor great for stir-frying vegetables.

Rice Vinegar

Resulting from the fermentation of sugars in rice, this vinegar is very light in color with a clean and delicate flavor similar to apple cider vinegar. It does not alter the appearance offood and works nicely with herbs and spices.

Anne Elizabeth Cundiff, RD, LD, FAND, is a retail registered dietitian with Hy-Vee, Inc. in Des Moines, Iowa. She is a Stone Soup blogger, author of I’m a Registered Dietitian…Now What? and host of the podcast Conversations with Anne Elizabeth.

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